Redshank beach house review – in deepest Essex, cork tiles are back

Redshank, built from cork and cross-laminated timber, rises 2. 4 metres from the ground
Redshank, built from cork and cross-laminated timber, rises 2.4 metres from the ground / © Antonio Olmos

This coastal retreat on stilts owes a debt to wartime sea forts. Built from cork and cross-laminated timber, it rises 2.4 metres from the ground

Dotted about the coastal waters of Britain, in the approaches to major ports, are some of the most astounding and least visited works of 20th-century architecture. These are the Maunsell sea forts, platforms for anti-aircraft guns built in the second world war, posses of four-legged pods that stand in the sea like HG Wells aliens gone for a paddle. They have been influential, especially on the 1960s visionaries Archigram, who in turn inspired the hi-tech architecture of Richard Rogers and others.

The sea forts lie behind Archigram’s most potent single idea, for “Walking Cities”, which fantasised about buildings wandering the Earth. Which never happened, but now another Maunsell-flavoured future has arrived, if rather small, in the form of a seaside retreat on stilts for an artist couple, designed by the architect Lisa Shell. One aspect undreamt by futurists of the past is that an artefact of the 21st century should come covered (as it is) in such a venerable material as cork.

The location is the edge of Essex, in a zone where the conventions of the land break down. It is a place of natural beauty, flat, horizontally grand, saline, a site of special scientific interest, with flora particular to the environment and more shades of grey-green light playing across land and water than could be thought possible. An ancient priory is not far off. There are also wind farms, a sewage farm, concrete wartime defences, caravan parks, rickety, shack-like houses that look as if they could blow away in the next storm, old gravel pits, strings of telegraph poles. A Brexiter’s union flag sometimes punctuates. The settlement where the cork-clad house stands was a prewar holiday resort, curtailed by the conflict, now a line of fragile houses along one side of a rough road; the new house stands alone on the other side, perched above a long band of shrubby sea blite. […]